Nitrous is a simple oxide of nitrogen. It’s a colorless gas with a slight metallic edge to the taste and scent. It’s not something that most people encounter in their everyday lives, though there are some exceptions to this rule, it is widely used in medicine as well as in motorsports and rocket ships! But the question is does this lead to some sort of fire hazard and if so what should be done about it?
Nitrous oxide is not considered flammable, because it can not burn as a fuel. However, it can act as an oxidizer and cause a fire to burn hotter, faster, and more intensely.
So, while nitrous is not flammable, it has the propensity to increase the strength and rate of burning in a fire. That means it’s a good idea to know a little more about nitrous. Let’s take a look.
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Also read: What Makes Something Flammable?
What Is Nitrous?
Nitrous or more properly, nitrous oxide, is an oxide of nitrogen with the chemical formula of N2O.
It is used, mainly, in medicine and it is considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be one of the “essential medicines” for use everywhere.
This is due to its low cost as well as its safe and effective use in a variety of applications.
In motorsports and rocket fuel, it’s used for its special property to provide oxygen to a fire and this can be used to boost the power of the engine.
It appears in the atmosphere in trace quantities, which is good because N2O is a major scavenger of ozone and thus, nitrous is a greenhouse gas.
Unfortunately, nitrous does not break down particularly quickly and that means even in tiny quantities, it has become a major contributor to climate change.
Is Nitrous Oxide Flammable?
Nitrous oxide is not flammable.
In fact, when it is exposed to fire, it breaks down into N2 gas which is completely unreactive under most circumstances (a good thing, considering it makes up a large part of the atmosphere and you’re breathing in and out happily while you read this) and oxygen.
The oxygen content, however, means that it will help to accelerate a fire, and that means it will burn brighter and hotter, which is not always a good thing.
This means that although nitrous oxide is not flammable, it still needs to be stored away from flammable materials or it could make an accidental fire much worse.
This is because it will fill the oxidizer (oxygen) portion of the fire reaction, rather than the fuel. This is why it can help cars go faster. It allows the combustion process to occur faster and hotter, which means a faster car.
You can see this demonstrated in this video:
Also read: Is Ammonia Flammable?
Can It Explode?
Because nitrous oxide isn’t flammable, it is not an explosion hazard per se.
However, as a gas, nitrous is stored in cylinders and that means if the cylinders are exposed to enough heat, the nitrous will expand inside them and if it expands enough, it will shatter the cylinder and cause an explosion.
It’s important to note that it is the cylinder that explodes though and not the nitrous.
Take a look here:
Also read: Is Freon® Flammable?
Can Nitrous Ever Catch Fire?
Nitrous oxide is neither flammable nor combustible and it won’t catch fire, but as we’ve noted, it does provide fuel for a fire and thus, this distinction from an observer’s point of view is probably moot.
If the nitrous is added to something else that’s burning, it will appear to catch on fire even though it’s not burning, the other substance is. It is just speeding up and intensifying the oxidization process of the fire.
Is Nitrous The Same As Laughing Gas?
Yes, nitrous oxide is also known as laughing gas, and this property was first discovered when the doctors and chemists, Thomas Beddoes and James Watt, began to investigate the idea of treating people with breathing disorders such as tuberculosis with what they called “fractious airs”.
Nitrous had been recently discovered and seemed to fit the bill as a “fractious air”.
So, Watt built a machine to create nitrous, it then passed the gas to a second chamber to be cleaned, before it moved to an air bag where the patient could breathe it in.
The machine was first constructed in 1794 but had to wait, for an unspecified reason, for clinical trials four years later in 1798.
It didn’t cure tuberculosis, mind you, but it did make the patients feel good and laugh and Humphry Davy, who was conducting the first investigations into potential anesthetics at the time, gave it the name of “laughing gas”.
Can You Feel Pain With Laughing Gas?
Davy also discovered that while laughing gas was pretty terrible as a cure for infectious diseases, it did have a rather miraculous quality in that under the appropriate dose of laughing gas, people didn’t feel any pain.
Sadly for the people of the 19th century, Davy’s discovery was ignored for nearly 50 years, and instead, the British upper classes decide to adopt nitrous as a party drug and held “laughing gas parties” for their guests, instead.
And, in fact, by the time they did get around to using laughing gas as an anesthetic, better drugs were being discovered and it fell swiftly out of favor in favor of chloroform and diethyl ether.
However, these two drugs turned out to be too strong in their own right, and by the 1930s, hospital anesthetic was a mix of nitrous and diethyl ether, and it often is today too.
How Cold Is Nitrous Oxide?
The temperate of N2O gas is variable depending on pressure and the mixture of other gases it is being stored.
The standard cylinder of 50% N2O and 50% O2 under a pressure of 2000 psi has an internal temperature of about -6 degrees Celsius or 21.2 degrees Fahrenheit.
Can It Burn Your Nose?
Nitrous oxide’s use for recreational purposes has never entirely faded from view and even today, some people buy cylinders of laughing gas for fun rather than for medical or fuel purposes.
Unfortunately, over time, this can irritate and inflame the lungs, throat, and nose.
In turn, this won’t cause burns, but it may cause coughing and regular nosebleeds.
Is It Bad For You?
In general, laughing gas is a very safe product.
It is why dentists use it for anesthetic when a mild effect is required and why it remains part of the most common blend of hospital anesthetics too.
It causes no known allergic reactions and has been shown not to impact the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, etc.
Can You Drive After Using Nitrous?
Yes. In fact, another reason nitrous oxide is used as an anesthetic is how easy it is to control the dose you receive and how fast the effects will wear off.
In short, you start to feel the effects immediately when you start to breathe it but when the gas is removed it takes a matter of a minute or so to be fully normal again.
By the time you’ve reached your car, the effects are going to be gone.
Obviously, this does not mean that you can drive while using nitrous oxide, that would be foolish in the extreme.
What Are The Negative Effects?
The negative effects of nitrous are minimal but not entirely absent.
It’s possible for its use to cause drowsiness, sweating, shivering, nausea, headaches, and even vomiting.
Ideally, following the use of nitrous, it’s a good idea to breathe clinical oxygen for about 5 minutes as this can prevent headaches.
Can Nitrous Oxide Cause Seizures?
There are three known incidents of patients having seizures following the use of nitrous in surgical environments.
However, though these incidents are related to each other in terms of the timing of the use of the chemical and the end result, there is no evidence of causality.
That means, they can’t prove that nitrous caused the seizures and it’s entirely possible that it did not.
After all, for example, an epileptic can have a seizure without going anywhere near nitrous.
How Long Does Laughing Gas Stay In Your System?
It’s important to be careful here, the effect of nitrous will last no more than 4 minutes from ceasing the inhalation of the gas.
That doesn’t mean that it’s left your system though and it can be found in the body after exposure using certain tests.
Can It Be Detected In a Drug Test?
It could be, but it won’t be.
There is no routine drug screening for nitrous oxide, so even though tests exist to detect its presence, they aren’t used in drug screening.
Please note: this is not an endorsement or an encouragement to use nitrous recreationally.
How Long Does It Take To Recover?
As we’ve already seen, it takes less than 5 minutes to recover after you stop breathing the gas.